The word "justice" is on everyone's lips nowadays, and may
signify almost anything. We hear the cry "Peace and Justice!" from
folk who would destroy existing societies with fire and sword.
Other folk fancy that perfect justice might readily be obtained by
certain financial rearrangements -- as if anything in this world
ever could be perfected. One thinks of the observation of William
James: "So long as one poor cockroach suffers the pangs of
unrequited love, this world will not be a moral world." At the end
of the twentieth century, the liberal mentality demands justice for
All confusion about the meaning of the word "justice"
notwithstanding, the latest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica
contains no article under the heading "Justice." Yet there is a
succinct article about justices of the peace, of whose number I
once was one, before the state of Michigan swept away that high
office. My lecture today may be regarded as the attempt of a fool,
rushing in where the angelic Britannica fears to tread. Yet
possibly the nature of justice may be apprehended by a mere quondam
justice of the peace: for the fundamental purpose of law is to keep
the peace. "Justice is the ligament which holds civilized beings
and civilized nations together," said Daniel Webster at the funeral
of Justice Joseph Story, in 1845; and so say I today.
I propose in this series of four lectures to discuss first the
signification of this word "justice"; in my second lecture, to
examine natural law; in my third, to deal with criminal justice; in
my concluding lecture, to quarrel with certain notions of justice
that have been much puffed up during recent years. In the
twenty-first century of the Christian era, will justice signify
anything more than the state's rigorous enforcement of its edicts?
Such questions I hope to raise in your minds.
Nowadays, near the close of the twentieth century, moral and
political disorders bring grave confusion about the meanings of old
words. As T. S. Eliot wrote in "Burnt Norton" -- Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the
tension, slip, slide, perish, Decay with imprecision, will not stay
in place, Will not stay still. Shrieking voices Scolding, mocking,
or merely chattering, Always assail them.
Conspicuous among such venerable words, in our era often abused
and misrepresented, is this necessary word justice. Today I am
attempting to purify the dialect of the tribe -- to borrow another
phrase from my old friend Eliot, who endeavored lifelong to rescue
words from the clutch of the vulgarizer or of the ideologue.
Permit me first to offer preliminary descriptions or definitions
of this word justice. Jeremy Taylor, in the middle of the
seventeenth century, wrote that there exist two kinds of justice.
The one is commutative justice, or reciprocal justice, expressed in
Scripture thus: "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you,
even so do to them." In Taylor's words, "This is the measure... of
that justice which supposes exchange of things profitable for
things profitable, that as I supply your need, you may supply mine;
as I do a benefit to you, I may receive one by you.... "
The other kind is distributive justice, expressed in this
passage from Romans: "Render to all their dues; tribute to whom
tribute is due, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear, honor to
whom honor; owe no man anything but to love one another." Upon this
Taylor comments, "This justice is distinguished from the first,
because the obligation depends not upon contract or express
bargain, but passes upon us by some command of God, or of our
superior, by nature or by grace, by piety or religion, by trust or
by office, according to that commandment, 'As every man hath
received the gift, so let him minister the same one to another, as
good stewards of the manifold grace of God.'"
But perhaps, ladies and gentlemen, I proceed too fast; I shall
have more to say a little later about the Christian concept of
justice. Just now a little about the classical idea of justice. The
classical definition, which comes to us through Plato, Aristotle,
Saint Ambrose, and Saint Augustine of Hippo, is expressed in a
single phrase: suum cuique, or "to each his own." As this is put in
Justinian's Corpus Juris Civilis, "Justice is a habit whereby a man
renders to each one his due with constant and perpetual will."
Aristotle instructs us that the prevalence of injustice makes clear
the meaning of justice. Also Aristotle remarks that it is unjust to
treat unequal things equally -- a principle to which I shall return
in my later lectures. Of the virtue called justice, Saint Augustine
declares, "Justice is that ordering of the soul by virtue of which
it comes to pass that we are no man's servant, but servants of God
Upon such ancient postulates, classical or Christian, rests our
whole elaborate edifice of law here in these United States -- even
though few Americans know anything about the science of
jurisprudence. For public order is founded upon moral order, and
moral order arises from religion -- a point upon which I mean to
touch later in this talk of mine. If these venerable postulates are
flouted or denied -- as they have been denied by the Marxists in
the present century, and were denied by sophists in Plato's time --
then arbitrary power thrusts justice aside, and "they shall take
who have the power, and they shall keep who can."
All these brief definitions require explanation. But for the
moment I pass on to the common understanding, the common sense, of
the meaning of justice. All of us here present, I suppose,
entertain some notion of what justice signifies. From what source
do we obtain such a concept? Why, very commonly, from observation
of a just man or a just woman. We begin by admiring someone -- he
may be some famous judge, or he may be an obscure neighbor -- who
accords to every person he encounters that person's due. Just men,
in short, establish the norm of justice. When I began to write my
book The conservative Mind, I discovered that the abstraction
"conservatism" amounts to a general term descriptive of the beliefs
and actions of certain eminent men and women whom we call
"conservative" because they have endeavored to protect and nurture
the Permanent Things in human existence. So it is with justice: in
large part, we learn the meaning of justice by acquaintance with
In the ancient world, the most just of men was Solon, Athens'
lawgiver, poet, and hero. As Solon wrote of his reform of the
Athenian constitution --
Such power I gave the people as might do, Abridged not
what they had, nor lavished new; Those that were great in wealth
and high in place My counsel likewise kept from all disgrace.
Before them both I kept my shield of might, And let not either
touch the other's right.
To each class, that is, Solon gave its due, and so preserved the
peace: that is social justice.
But we need not turn to the pages of Plutarch to discover just
men: they are not an extinct species, though perhaps an endangered
one. I think of my grandfather, Frank Pierce, a bank-manager in
Plymouth, twenty miles north of Detroit. He was the leading man of
Lower Town (now called Old Town), near the railroad yards -- not
because he was either rich or charismatic, but because he was just.
Justice, of course, is one of the cardinal virtues; and like the
other virtues, justice is said to be its own reward -- which is
well, the virtue of justice seldom earning material rewards. When a
member of the town council, my grandfather refused to supply water
free of charge to the town's principal industrial plant, on the
grounds that if the factory couldn't pay water bills, who could?
For that offense, the firm's president swore he would have Pierce
discharged by the bank; but the bank's president happening also to
be a just man, my grandfather's livelihood was not swept away. My
grandfather's counsel was sought by everyone in the Lower Town who
needed advice; and his kindliness even moved him, on occasion, to
extend interest-free personal loans, from his own pocket, to young
married couples who could not meet the requirements for loans from
the bank. (His salary was two hundred dollars a month.) I do not
mean that he was indiscriminately sentimental; not at all. On the
several occasions when robbers invaded his branch bank, he
successfully repelled them, at great risk: for the just man defends
vigorously whatever is entrusted to his charge, and sets his face
against the lawless. He was just to children, too: taking me on
long walks, during which we talked of everything under the sun, but
rapping sharply on the dining- room table when I waxed impudent at
meals -- I immediately abashed and repentant. By watching this
kindly paterfamilias, and listening to what he said, I came to
apprehend justice quite early. For Frank Pierce gave every man his
due, without fear or favor.
In every society, from the most primitive to the most decadent,
there are found some persons, like my grandfather, whom everyone
recognizes as just. (Even bank-robbers and kidnappers -- for he was
kidnapped once by desperados -- remarked that Frank Pierce was a
just man.) From what source do such just men and women derive their
habits or principles of justice?
Are they familiar with jurisprudential theories? Only rarely:
even most judges on the bench nowadays are not well grounded in the
philosophy of law. My grandfather, who possessed a substantial
library -- perhaps the only library in Plymouth's Lower Town --
read history, but not philosophy or law.
Are their concepts of justice learnt in church? Not so,
ordinarily. My grandfather never attended church: he came from a
family that began as Pilgrims to Massachusetts and gradually moved
through all the American stages of the dissidence of dissent. He
never read the Bible at home. He inherited Christian morals, but
not Christian faith in the transcendent.
Do they create for themselves a rough-and-ready utilitarian
scheme for the administering of justice, founded principally upon
their private experience of the human condition? Only infrequently,
I think; for most of them would subscribe to the maxim of Benjamin
Franklin, "Experience is a hard master, but fools will have no
Well, then, how do just men and women apprehend the meaning of
justice? From tradition, I maintain: from habits and beliefs that
have long persisted within family and within local community.
Aristophanes, contradicting Socrates, argued that virtue cannot be
taught in schools or by tutors: rather, virtue inheres in old
families. I believe that to be especially true of the cardinal
virtue called justice. Or this tradition of justice, families and
communities aside, may become known through private reading,
perhaps: anyone who attentively reads the great Victorian
novelists, say, cannot well escape absorbing, even if unaware of
his acquisition, principles of personal and social justice. More
obvious, if more rare nowadays, is the influence of the Greek and
Roman classics toward forming an affection for justice. Until well
into the nineteenth century, Cicero was studied in every decent
school; and this passage from that statesman-philosopher implanted
an apprehension of the nature of justice:
Law is the highest reason, implanted in nature, which
commands what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. This
reason, when firmly fixed and fully developed in the human mind, is
law. And so they believe that law is intelligence, whose natural
function it is to command right conduct and forbid wrongdoing. They
think that this quality has derived its name in Greek from the idea
of granting to every man his own, and in our language I believe it
has been named from the idea of choosing.
In short, there exists a literary tradition expounding the idea
of justice. The most recent popular example of this tradition is to
be found in an appendix to C. S. Lewis's little book The Abolition
of Man. Therein Lewis sets side by side, drawn from various
cultures, illustrations of the Tao, or Natural Law. He groups these
precepts or injunctions under eight headings: the law of general
beneficence; the law of special beneficence; duties to parents,
elders, ancestors; duties to children and posterity; the law of
justice; the law of good faith and veracity; the law of mercy; the
law of magnanimity. Everywhere in the world, in every age, Lewis is
saying, wise men and women have perceived the nature of justice and
expressed that nature in proverb, maxim, and injunction.
At this point one may inquire, "Are you implying that just men
and women find in religious doctrines -- Hebraic, Christian,
Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist -- the fountains of justice?" Yes, I am so
reasoning. The sanction for justice will be found, ultimately, in
religious insights as to the human condition, and particularly in
Revelation. Our so-called "Western" concepts of justice are derived
from the Decalogue, Platonic religious philosophy, and the
teachings of the Christ. Somewhere there must exist an authority
for beliefs about justice; and the authority of merely human, and
therefore fallible, courts of law is insufficient to command
popular assent and obedience.
It does not follow, however, that all just men and women
recognize the ultimate source of ideas about justice, or appeal to
that ultimate source. My grandfather never read a line that Saint
Thomas Aquinas wrote, though his understanding of justice accorded
well enough with what Aquinas expresses so convincingly in the
Summa. To my grandfather the justice-concepts of the Hebraic and
classical and medieval cultures were transmitted through British
and American moral, legal, and literary traditions, and through
long custom and habit within his family and within the small-town
American communities where he had lived. If pressed as to why he
held a certain understanding of the word "justice" -- indeed, he
once compulsorily engaged in a dialogue on that subject with a
rather Nietzschean desperado intent on persuading my grandfather to
open his bank's safe -- I suppose that Frank Pierce would have
replied, "Because good men always have so believed." Securus
judicat orbis terrarum, bonos non esse qui se dividunt ab orbe
terrarum in quacunque parte terrarum, Saint Augustine of Hippo
instructs us -- "The calm judgment of the world is that those men
cannot be good who, in any part of the world, cut themselves off
from the rest of the world." The word justice implies obligation to
others, or to an Other.
Thus far I have been describing the concept of justice that
prevailed in the Western world down to the closing years of the
eighteenth century. Behind the phrase "to each his own" lay the
beliefs that divine wisdom has conferred upon man a distinct
nature; that human nature is constant; that the idea of justice is
implanted in the human consciousness by a transcendent power; and
that the general rule by which we endeavor to do justice is this:
"to each man, the things that are his own."
What is meant by this famous phrase? To put the matter very
succinctly, the doctrine of suum cuique affirms that every man,
minding his own business, should receive the rewards which are
appropriate to his work and duties. It takes for granted a society
of diversity, with various classes and interests. It implies both
responsibility toward others and personal freedom. It has been a
strong protection for private property, on a small scale or a
great; and a reinforcement, for Jews and Christians, of the Tenth
Commandment. Through the Roman law, this doctrine of justice passed
into the legal codes of the European continent, and even into
English and American law.
Injustice, according to this doctrine, occurs when men try to
undertake things for which they are not fitted, and to claim
rewards to which they are not entitled, and to deny to other men
what really belongs to those other men. As Plato puts it, in The
Republic, quite as an unjust man is a being whose reason, will, and
appetite are at war one with another, so an unjust society is a
state afflicted by "meddlesomeness, and interference, and the
rising up of a part of the soul against the whole, an assertion of
unlawful authority, which is made by a rebellious subject against a
true prince, of whom he is the natural vassal -- what is all this
confusion and delusion but injustice, and intemperance and
cowardice and ignorance, and every form of vice?"
Edmund Burke re-expressed this doctrine of "to each his own"
when, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he wrote of
true natural rights: "Men have a right to the fruits of their
industry, and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They
have a right to the acquisitions of their parents, to the
nourishment and improvement of their offspring, to instruction in
life, and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separately
do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for
himself; and he has a right to all which society, with all its
combinations of skill and force, can do in his favor."
And yet in Burke's own time, there arose a very different idea
of justice, the Utilitarian concept, expounded by Jeremy Bentham.
From Bentham's jurisprudence there is descended the powerful
present-day school of legal thought that we call legal positivism
or legal realism. Positivistic jurisprudence arose in alliance with
nineteenth-century nationalism and with scientific mechanism and
materialism. To the legal positivist or realist, laws are the
commands of human beings merely. There exists, for the positivist,
no necessary connections between law and morals, or between law as
it is and law as it ought to be. The positivists' legal system is a
closed, logical system without need for referring to social aims,
policies, or moral standards. So-called "moral judgments," to the
positivists, are "value judgments" merely: and value judgments
cannot be established or defended by rational argument. This
positivistic understanding of justice and law looms large in
American courts today.
But in this lecture I do not have time to analyze the strengths
and weaknesses of legal positivism. For the present, I do no more
than to point out that nineteenth- and twentieth-century positivism
stands in harsh opposition to both the classical and the Christian
understanding of justice and law. In Catholic universities, at
least, some defense still is offered of the Augustinian virtue of
justice and the venerable theory of natural law.
It is my purpose in today's remarks to state the classical and
the Christian concept of justice, as opposed to the positivists'
denial of any source for justice except the commands of the
sovereign state. And I will touch glancingly upon the connections
among religion, justice, and law. (Justice and law are not
identical, though they may be closely related: in a good
commonwealth, law is an attempt to maintain standards of justice,
so far as that may be achieved in a bent world.)
All law is derived from the religious understanding -- that is,
all law in the traditional societies of the West; law in totalist
states is another matter entirely. Moses came down from Horeb and
did justice upon criminous Israelites: the prophet as lawgiver.
Solon reformed the laws of Draco: the religious poet as lawgiver.
When law is divorced from the moral sanction of religious
convictions, presently the law is corrupted by passion, prejudice,
private interest, and misguided sentimentality.
The church is concerned with the inner order: the order of the
soul. The state is concerned with the outer order: the order of the
commonwealth. Between state and church, nevertheless, relationships
are ineluctable. Among these relationships is an understanding of
Such relationships took shape in the West so early as the fifth
century of the Christian era. We perceive them in the connections
between Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and his friend Boniface, Count
of Africa. In theory, all Christians of the West believe in
separation of church and state -- though sometimes that principle
has been more honored in the breach than in the observance.
The church recognizes the necessary end of the state, and so
submits to the state's laws. Because of human sinfulness, the
Fathers of the Church taught, the state is ordained of God. As best
it can, the state restrains the three chief forms of lust:
cupidity, the lust for possessions; the libido dominandi, the lust
for power; and sexual lust, the abuse of the gift of procreation.
When the state is enfeebled, these lusts work the ruin of the
person and the republic.
So it is that the church, even in Roman imperial times, has
taught obedience to civil magistrates. Saint Augustine reasoned
that the good citizen, the believing Christian, should obey every
command of the state, save one: an order to worship false gods and
to serve Satan.
Yet church and state have different ends, though both uphold
justice. There runs through the history of Christianity the
doctrine of the two swords: the church's sword of faith, the
state's sword of secular justice.
Knowing that this earthly existence is not the be-all and end-
all, the church holds that perfect justice is in the power of God
alone, beyond the confines of time and space. In this world here
below, we mete out justice as best we may. Sometimes we err in our
administering of justice; it cannot well be otherwise; we are not
perfect or perfectible creatures.
To apprehend the church's stand on mundane justice, it is
desirable to make distinctions between crime and sin. A crime is an
act or omission which the law punishes on behalf of the state,
whether because that act or omission is expressly forbidden by
statute, or because it is so injurious to the public as to require
punishment on the ground of public policy.
A sin is a transgression against moral law, with that law's
divine sanctions. It is God, not the State, who punishes or
Not all sins are crimes. We have it on the authority of Saint
Paul that the greatest of the theological virtues is charity.
Therefore uncharitableness is a great sin; yet lack of charity is
not an offense at law. A man may be all his life snarling,
sneering, contemptuous, envious, abominable in his language toward
his wife, his children, and others to whom he owes obligations --
that is, perfectly uncharitable; yet he will run no risk of being
haled before the bar of criminal justice. The uncharitable may be
dealt with at the Last Judgment. But mundane courts of law do not
touch the sinner unless his sins result in violence or fraud or
substantial damage to others. The state is unconcerned with sins
unless they lead to breaches of the peace, or menace the social
order. This separation of function accords with the doctrine of the
Quite as the state -- that is, the constitutional state -- does
not lay down religious dogmata in recent times, so the church does
not decree the laws of mundane justice, as expressed through courts
of law. When the church has endeavored to impose its doctrines
through the operation of the state's criminal law, the church has
I have been speaking of orthodox Christian doctrine, interwoven
with principles of law in America, Britain, and many other
countries -- interwoven, that is, until recent decades. But great
confusion has fallen upon us in these years near the end of the
century. Increasingly, the state -- aye, the democratic state, too
-- separates itself from the religious understanding of the human
condition. And a good many churchmen abandon Christian realism for
a sentimental humanitarianism.
Let me remind you of the true signification of this word
"humanitarianism." Properly defined -- and this is the definition
one still finds in the Oxford English Dictionary -- humanitarianism
is the doctrine that Jesus of Nazareth possessed a human nature
merely, not being divine; and, by extension, the doctrine that
mankind may become perfect without divine aid. A humanitarian is a
person totally secularized in his convictions. Yet erroneously many
people use "humanitarian" as a term of commendation. "He was a
great humanitarian," they say of Albert Schweitzer. That charitable
and heroic man, a professing Christian, would have rejected
indignantly that label.
Now what has this distinction between humanitarianism and
charity to do with justice? The point is this: the humanitarian
denies the existence of sin, declaring that what we call "sins" are
not moral matters at all, resulting instead from circumstance,
faulty rearing, or social oppression. In the view of the
humanitarian, sins -- and crimes, too -- are the work of "society";
and sinners and criminals are victims, rather than unjust
offenders. Such reasoning is the consequence of holding that man
and society may be perfected through mere alteration of social
conditions, without the intervention of divine grace.
The humanitarian frequently proclaims his abhorrence of severe
punishments -- perhaps of any punishments. Why? First, because of
his illusion that no human being possesses the ability to make
moral choices. Second, because of his horror of inflicting pain. He
leaves no ultimate justice to God, because he fancies that no God
exists. The mere preservation of one's comfortable earthly life is
his obsession, he fancying that man is not made for eternity.
On the other hand, the humanitarian fulminates against those who
disagree with his principles. Thus there occurs the phenomenon
called "the humanitarian with the guillotine." (The recent French
film called Danton sufficiently illustrates this ferocious love of
all humankind.) As Edmund Burke put it, speaking of the
humanitarian Jacobins, men who today snatch the worst criminals
from the hands of justice tomorrow may approve the slaughter of
whole classes. Humanitarian apologies in our own time for butchery
by communist revolutionaries sufficiently suggest the persistence
of this curious intolerant humanitarianism. The ideologue need
merely proclaim that his object is universal happiness here below,
and he is approved uncritically by the humanitarian. As Solovyev
wrote, the banners of the Anti-Christ will bear the legend, "Feed
men, and then ask them of virtue."
In this disordered age, when it seems as if the fountains of the
great deep had been broken up, our urgent need is to restore a
general understanding of the classical and Christian teaching about
justice. Without just men and women, egoism and appetite bring down
a civilization. Without strong administration of justice by the
state, we all become so many Cains, every man's hand against every
other man's. The humanitarian fancies himself zealous for the life
impulse; in reality, he would surrender us to the death impulse.
The humanitarian's visions issue from between the delusory gates of
ivory; justice issues from between the gates of horn.
Public instruction that ignores both our classical patrimony and
our religious patrimony may fail to rear up just men and women.
Positivist jurisprudence that denies any moral order and any
religious sanction for justice may end in a general flouting of all
law. We prate of "peace and justice" in a dissolving culture,
without apprehending tolerably the words we employ. "Shrieking
voices/ Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,/ Always assail
them." These are the voices of the ideologue, the neurotic, and the
nihilist, pulling down the old understanding of Justice, "to each
"Justice is a certain rectitude of mind, whereby a man does what
he ought to do in the circumstances confronting him." So Thomas
Aquinas instructs us. At every college and university, the doctors
of the schools ought to inquire of themselves, "Do we impart such
rectitude of mind? And if we do not, will there be tolerable
private or public order in the twenty-first century?"